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Strawberry Panic Notes

I am back from an extended hiatus caused by a combination of the extended US Holiday Season, the first real vacation I’ve been able to take in quite some time, some medical stuff, and assorted other life things that happen. Also working on a new project, but not quite ready to start boasting about it yet.

There are a number of new full reviews backlogged in the pipeline, but having just finished watching the low-rent Maria Watches Over Us ripoff Strawberry Panic, I wanted to jot down some thoughts. I intend to write a full review of this one (I’m about to embark on a yuri review bender, since it’s an underrepresented genre I like), but in the mean time…

The show is, basically, not very good. It ends up a lot better than it starts, but the path there is kind of a mess, and it’s particularly frustrating because it eventually reveals that there are some good ideas in there, it just completely failed to make something of them until way late in the game.

Watching it goes kind of like this: The first couple episodes are just weird; a mix of frilly Catholic girls’ school cliches, adoring, sparkly-eyed girls staring at uber-girl Shizuma, and weird pseud-sexual things where Shizuma keeps making wildly inappropriate moves to kiss the ditzy protagonist Nagisa. Those are uncomfortable, and they’re supposed to be (sort of), but that then settles down for a while.

From there through episode 6 is boring unless you love silly girls-school stuff and unfunny light comedy. Then episode 7 finally breaks out a secondary romance and a bunch of intra-school drama involving scheming evil lesbian student council members (essentially everybody in the show is at least mildly inclined toward the same gender, but these two are the only ones depicted doing anything seriously physical). And then… nothing really happens for the next several episodes, so it’s back to boring through episode 11.

Episode 12 finally drops a drama bomb—among other things we’re shown that the intent of the romance isn’t all teary-eyed smiles and hand-holding, in no uncertain terms—and makes things interesting from a character standpoint with the main couple. 13 is slow, but adds another big dramatic twist with the secondary set of romances.

And then, in season 2, it again fails to take that momentum anywhere. Now that the drama and stakes are closer to the surface, I at least was paying attention, but in place of boredom is frustration—it drags out and obfuscates what should have been interesting all the way through episode 18; that one at least has some big stuff, but is mostly botched and still drags painfully.

Then comes episode 19, which is solid backstory, and really good. Shockingly good. It’s not spectacular—we’re still dealing with broad-stroked yuri romantic tragedy—but it flows well, is touchingly and convincingly romantic, has a beautifully tragic crescendo, and even does a good job of tying itself back to the present at the very end.

The thing that’s so disappointing about this is that that one episode showed that the series had interesting, or at least entertaining, things to do, it had just completely failed to pull them off for about 15 of the preceding 18 episodes, and in a single episode it got more emotional response than in the entire series combined to that point. (Heck, it’s backstory so you don’t need to know the characters, so you could just watch that single episode standalone and probably enjoy it as its own little tale.)  It sure grabbed my interest, though, and got under my skin in the way a good romance (or tragi-romance) should.

The remainder of the series is better, at least, but even then it drags things out so laboriously that it got pretty maddening by the end, not helped any by the fact that it had screwed up so spectacularly before that I had little faith in it pulling off a decent end. Thankfully, the very end, at least, is romantically satisfying, so at least it wasn’t a total waste. It does, however, have one of the most ridiculously contrived plot twists I have ever seen, and in the last couple episodes—it had me shaking my head that it actually went there. In the “No, even this show wouldn’t do something that stupid… wait, yes, it would.”

So you have, roughly, 11 episodes of boredom, two interesting ones, another 5 of frustration, one really good one, and a mix of decent (mostly 25, which follows up on what 13 started and it immediately screwed up), frustration, and embarrassing for the remaining 7.

Here are the three things that struck me most about the show:

One, it does a miserable job of setting things up. The entire first season utterly fails to foreshadow later events or make the actions of the characters make sense, so when the big backstory reveal comes, it doesn’t feel like “Oh, now I understand.”—the good feeling you get when secrets are revealed. It’s more like “Oh, that explains what they were trying, and failing, to do with all those previous plot points.”—just made clear how awkward all the plot progression had been up to then.

Two, the characterization is really, really weak. Characters start to make sense in the second half, but most of their actions seem either random or blatantly plot driven. Lacking any internal logic, there’s nothing to get attached to as a viewer. The contrast is made all too clear by episode 19, which does make sense—you get what’s going on, the characters do things that make sense, and you can get an emotional handle on them. After that things improve somewhat, but even then it’s awkward.

Three, following from two, chemistry. The main couple completely lack chemistry for most of the series. With enough chemistry, you can overlook almost anything, but without it a romance has nothing to stand on (and this series certainly wasn’t substituting plot). Again drawn into the starkest contrast by episode 19, which in just a few minutes establishes powerful, believable chemistry between the same character and her previous love, which makes the whole thing work (heck, it’s so effective you can almost get into her as a character after that). They’re two people who aren’t just smiling at each other, aren’t just kissing, they’re physically hungry for each other. It doesn’t need to tell you how in love they are, because you can feel both affection and passion just from the way they look at each other.

Contrast the actual protagonist, who’s lively and cheerful, but nowhere near enough so that she seems at all believable to catch the eye of Shizuma; together they have no chemistry at all that you can feel until near the end, and even then it’s relatively weak. Given how she’s supposed to be the chosen savior of the despondent lover, you need a lot more than “Generically chipper schoolgirl” to sell that.

Other notes: Production: The art swings wildly between nice and poor, the backgrounds are relatively pretty, the character animation is abysmal with occasional flashes of merely passable, the soundtrack does quite well with just a piano and violin, and all but the lame second end theme are surprisingly good generic darker J-something-pop. The setting is as narrow as it could possibly be; only two bits take place off campus, we never see a single male onscreen, and there are only four adults I could count who ever appear, none of them more than rarely (a teacher we see briefly once in a while and a scary nun who stops showing up after the first few episodes, plus a choir director and a doctor who are in maybe a couple shots and don’t even have lines). That last bit makes the school seem a little Lord of the Flies due to inattentive staff.

Symbolism: It tries to use red symbolically but mixes its metaphors, it clumsily tries to use falling water metaphorically throughout, and sexuality is treated as the villain up until the endgame, where it reverses course abruptly (and thankfully at that—until then the lesbian villains are the only two who seem to have a reasonably normal relationship for late-teens involved with each other). It goes ridiculously overboard to use a school ceremony to elect a representative and her partner as a wedding analogy, which falls apart the second time it comes up if you spend any effort thinking about it.

Content: The message (secondary to the romance) part is about healing from losing loved ones, be it to death or someone taller and better looking than you. The emotional drama is, with few exceptions, about people with a best friend who is a little too attached to you (varying degrees from vaguely romantic to blatantly so) and is sad and/or jealous when you get the hots for someone else, making your romance awkward. When it finally gets to the actual emotional drama it does passably well, it just takes way too long and keeps interspersing it with out-of-character stuff.

Position in yuri spectrum: Soft yuri that goes fairly hard without bringing up the L-word or social reality at all; largely cute, but a few times genuinely romantic, and leaves no room for misinterpretation about the physical nature of the major relationships or the long-term commitment of them.

Anyway, it has enough decent bits here and there, one good episode, and a satisfying enough end, that I don’t feel like watching it was a complete waste, but boy did it take its time getting there.  You could probably just watch episodes 1, 12-13, 18-19, and 25-26, and it’d be a decent show.

Seeing It On The Big Screen

I recently had the opportunity to (re-)watch AKIRA on the big screen at my local theater-bar.  It’s a big, old-school theater revived into a venue that shows cult movies and live acts with table seating and booze in the back. While I don’t think that their source material was of particularly high quality (I didn’t ask if it was a 35mm print or just a DVD, and the sound definitely had nothing on my home rig playing the blu-ray release), it is certainly a different experience to watch a movie intended for the big screen the way it was originally intended.

Even big-budget theatrical movies like Ponyo often don’t seem to really expect the big-screen treatment; sure, they look better larger-than-life, but the framing and scale are such that you lose little if anything when scaled down to a decent-sized home theater screen. The same is true of a lot of Hollywood fare, as well.

Project A-ko is a particularly good example; I’ve never seen it on the big screen, but I doubt anything other than a few of the shots of the alien ship and battles in the city do much with a large canvas. One of the indicators of this is that they actually painted the cels in old-fashioned-TV 4:3 ratio; if you compare USM’s newer DVD release (which is based off the Japanese home-video release) to their older DVD (which comes from theatrical masters), you’ll see that the TV-format version isn’t cropped from the widescreen one, it’s the other way around. (As for which is the “better” one, looking at the storyboard book I have, it appears that Nishijima did the rough framing intending widescreen, and the initial visual joke with Mari works much better in the wider format since you can’t see her head because she’s so tall.)

AKIRA, on the other hand, has lots of expansive city shots that take advantage of the action being blown up to a scale where you can really see what’s going on in the fully-animated crowds, and you get more of a sense of being in the action than watching it from a distance. I suppose you could get a similar effect by sitting really close to a smaller screen, but it’s just not quite the same thing as craning your neck from the front rows of a theater.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is another one that takes advantage of a theatrical screen for some of the crowd shots and landscapes. But the only anime film I can think of that really owns the big screen is Metropolis. I saw that one in both the theater and on home video, and the experience is completely different in a way few things since the old Cinemascope era have been.

There is, for example, a shot where the characters are walking on a crowded city street with skyscrapers looming above in which the people only take up a small fraction of the screen at the very bottom, and the rest is all buildings. On a TV, even a big one, this does a nice job of making the people look very small in comparison to the scale of the city itself. But from the front row of a theater, the people onscreen are roughly actual size, and are down near your eye level, while the buildings loom far over your head. It isn’t just more dramatic, it changes the shot from being clever to forcefully immersing you in the scene, and that was clearly no accident.

Elsewhere there’s a wide-angle shot with a couple of the characters picking their way through the rubble in the underbelly of the city that for all practical purposes will look like a static shot of the background on all but the largest TVs—the characters are so small they’re barely visible. On the big screen, however, the added size and resolution (blu-ray might remedy that second issue at home, but it’s DVD-only thus far) mean that you can really see the characters and what they’re doing against the expansive landscape around them. Again, the shot feels completely different, and was clearly intended explicitly with the theater experience in mind.

And that’s the thing about going to movie theaters. I, personally, almost never do. It’s expensive, inconvenient, most Hollywood fare is garbage, the MPAA enrages me, the sound is usually too loud and rarely sounds much better than my home system playing a blu-ray disc, and I could care less about 3D. Yet in a way it’s nice to see an artist who isn’t designing for the lowest common denominator, but instead decides to go big, even if most people aren’t going to truly appreciate it.

Which is why, whenever I have the chance, I go to see anime on the big screen—it’s not always a different experience, but the new perspective on things I’ve already seen is sometimes well worth it. And, at worst, I vote with my money to let the theater operator know that it’s worth bringing anime to town.

In other news, I just got back from a business trip to the exotic, but surprisingly less exotic than you’d think, land of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where I got to see the tallest building in the world and the experimental uber-tech city of Masdar, which included a system of electric, self-driving robo-taxis. Why, hello, Cyberpunk 2020, I didn’t realize you lived so close to 2011 already.

I also saw, at the Dubai Mall, one of those cinema replica places that included, alongside Marvel heroes and Star Wars favorites, a human-sized statue of none other than Grandizer (who Wikipedia tells me is quite popular in the Middle East):

An image of a cinema replica store at the Dubai Mall

Yep, that's good old Grandizer there behind Iron Man. (The sign says no photographs, but they can't really complain if you're standing on the other side of the hall.)

In Honor of My Father

My father had a heart attack a few days ago, and rather than waiting until he’s dead to write an obituary, I thought it’d be more appropriate to write a birthday tribute (he’s 86 today) while he’s still here beside me in the hospital room. It’s personal, but at least peripherally related to the World part of Akemi’s Anime World, and part of the reason this site exists.

In particular, I wanted to state in public that my father is a great man. Normally the measure of greatness is such that only the most exceptional have any hope of attaining it, but his most outwardly exceptional quality is one that anyone has the ability to emulate.

My father has a resume that includes everything from owning a miniature golf course, to being a sign painter, to odd-jobbing his way across the US with a buddy in a crank-start Model A Ford, to raising five children split across two families. At the peak of his career in the museum field, he was the head of a state historical society, with dozens of properties and a couple hundred employees. That might well rank as “great,” and would probably feature prominently in an obituary, but that has nothing to do with why I consider him great.

He also fought in World War II, which managed to get his entire generation labeled as “great,” but it also wasn’t that that made him great in my eyes—it’s what he did after he came home.

My father (far left), circa 1944, with some friends and mess kits

When my father was 16 years old, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  When he was 17, he enlisted as a US Marine and was sent to fight in the Pacific Theater. He spent the remainder of his teenage years alternating between being violently seasick on ships floating around the South Pacific and trudging around hot, rainy jungle islands swatting mosquitos and sleeping in holes filled with mud.

He was a radio operator, so was lucky enough to not see much front-line combat. He was also unlucky enough to hide under a jeep from incoming machine gun fire, to tiptoe behind a brash commander through the middle of a minefield, to watch a bullet-riddled Kamikaze fighter heading directly for his ship and hope the antiaircraft fire would bring it down before it reached him, to witness from a distance Okinawan women who’d been told that the Americans would do unspeakable things to them jump off of cliffs with their children rather than be captured.

Again, none of those things are what marked him as a great human being; the point of the list is that he spent the beginning of his adulthood stuck in the middle of a war halfway around the globe witnessing and experiencing horrors I can only imagine while a lot of Japanese people he had never met tried to kill him.

A little over fifty years later, at almost exactly the same age he was reading about a new enemy bombing Hawaii, his son (that would be me) began studying Japanese. At the same age he was in boot camp, I began dating a Japanese woman who had come to the US to study English. A few years later, at around the same age he was cheering the end of the war and his chance to finally get back home, I was flying to Japan to propose to her. It would be harder to imagine a starker contrast between the life path of father and son.

And that is what made him great: Never once, from the day he drove me to my first Japanese class, to the day he met my conversation partner, to the day I decided to marry her, to our tenth anniversary, to today, did he express the slightest hint of prejudice or disapproval. Indeed, so far as I have any reason to believe, never did he even feel either. On the contrary, he always did everything he could to teach me to treat every other human being with respect, and to genuinely welcome the woman I loved as if she was his own daughter.

That, in my opinion, is the mark of true greatness. Not the fighting of a war, but the willingness to forgive after one.

Not all of us, thankfully, have the opportunity to have our humanity tested so strongly. I, for one, pray that I never do. But everyone has the opportunity to practice it, and indeed the world would be so much better of a place if we all did. My father taught me—through action, not words—that any time someone expresses prejudice, all I need know is that if he could leave his enmity in the past, anyone can.

Sixty-six years later, with his son and daughter-in-law, in the church they were married in.

As my father struggled with leukemia and chemotherapy, every time I saw him the second question he asked was how Akemi, his daughter-in-law stranded in Japan after the earthquake, was doing. As he lay in a hospital bed after a heart attack, one of the things he went out of his way to ask from his potential deathbed was whether she had made it back from Japan without incident.

And to me, for all the interesting, dramatic, and important things my father did during his life, the simple smile on his face when he first saw Akemi after she finally made it home is the true, indelible mark of a great man.

Happy birthday, dad.

[Addendum: My father died quietly of complications from his various illnesses about a month after I wrote this. He did, however, have the chance to read it himself (and confirm the historical accuracy). A traditional obituary can be found here.]